The Sunday Telegraph - Beyond the honeymoon
November 20, 2016
The first time I went to the Maldives, nearly 20 years ago, I encountered an archipelago for loved‑up couples and honeymooners. Children were a surprise, usually not warmly welcomed – at some resorts they were barred. It was an unwritten rule that you did not bring screaming kids to ruin this perfect paradise.
How different it is today. Hotels, vying for repeat guests and customer loyalty, want to cater to those same couples who now have children. After all, catering for a growing family, rather than just two adults, would seem to be a smart business move.
To help me evaluate the country’s most family-friendly resorts, I brought along my three-year-old daughter, Mara. As we packed our bag, she asked: “Will there be a sand pit?”
“Actually, it is pretty much one big sand pit,” I smiled.
The small islands of the Maldives archipelago are among the most beautiful on Earth. They are safe, the beaches are void of any hawkers selling sarongs and there are no distractions.
But there is so much beyond the beach. Hotels here offer sophisticated food and excellent standards of service and they now host some of the most imaginative and inspiring children’s programmes going, including dolphin trips with marine biologists, coral adoption schemes, resident artists offering painting classes and all manner of child-friendly water sports.
Restaurants serve up healthy and thoughtful children’s menus that go well beyond chicken nuggets. Absurdly, perhaps, there are even spa menus for children.
Everywhere we went, there were subtle signs of a Maldives rebrand. Sure, this is still paradise for couples. But, more and more, those couples are encouraged to bring their children, and even their grandchildren. Just this week, Thomas Cook announced it had plans to expand into the Maldives with an own-brand hotel for families in the pipeline.
Together, Mara and I began our research, checking out the corners, crevices and cupboards of guest rooms, the springiness of mattresses, mosquito nets, the varying speeds of ceiling fans, plunge pools, and the views from over-water decks, spotting reef sharks and parrot fish.
We considered the fall-off at shorelines, and the shallow ends of swimming pools. At the kids’ clubs, we rated the puppet theatres, the dressing-up boxes and even the children’s loos. Mara adored the organised treasure hunts, dressing up as a pirate, biking around the island seeking buried treasure.
Of course, it’s not all light-hearted games. There is plenty to learn from the sea life. One evening we watched a presentation on manta ray conservation. A few days later, we spotted a stingray cruising the shallows. “Is that a manta?” Mara asked. Her keenness was gratifying.
By the time we reached Constance Halaveli, the last of the six hotels we had come to investigate, we had found our rhythm. We mixed up time at the kids’ club with a swim in the sea and meetings at the pool with her new best friends.
The one-hotel, one-island model gives children an unrivalled sense of freedom, a rare and wonderful thing in today’s security-conscious world of worries.
Predictably, perhaps, it was simple pleasures that won the day: outdoor showers, hermit crabs, spending days on end without shoes and building sand castles. These were no ordinary sand castles, though. They were the gleaming white variety, decorated with pretty pink shells found on some of the world’s best beaches, as the warm waters of the Indian Ocean lapped at our toes.
Per Aquum Niyama
Getting there: 45 minutes by seaplane (from Male)
Best age range: 12 months to seven years
The two islands making up this luxury resort are connected by a wooden bridge and have 134 slick rooms. The beach suites are a great option for families, with a sofa that turns into a sunken double bed.
In each room there are popcorn machines, complimentary ice cream and a supply of beach toys.
The sophisticated Explorers’ Club (run by slick operator Scott Dunn), for children up to 12 years, has a large playground, a sunken trampoline and water jets, as well as a kitchen for cooking lessons and air-conditioned indoor spaces for arts and crafts.
It is one of the few kids’ clubs to take babies from 12 months, and children are split into four age groups, with impressive ratios of highly qualified carers. Across the resort are a number of places to eat (with kids’ menus) including a treehouse, an underwater restaurant and ice-cream kiosk.
Getting there: 20 minutes by seaplane
Best age range: four to eight years
Of the 86 villas, the best for families are on the island, not the jetty, and have their own garden, pool and beach access. Some have bunk rooms ideal for tots, and the double-storey option with separate outdoor access is best for families with older children and can accommodate up to five of them.
The kids’ club has some of the longest hours in the Maldives, from 9am to 9pm, which means that children can play en masse in the evenings rather than be farmed out to in-villa babysitters.
The childcare team are a committed trio. Opposite the club, a tennis pro offers lessons for children, while all non-motorised water sports are free. On check-out, young guests mark the walls with a painted handprint before being given a manta ray soft toy souvenir. There is a resident doctor too.
Six Senses Laamu
Getting there: 40-minute scheduled flight, followed by a 20-minute boat transfer
Best age range: five to 10 years
The downside of getting here – requiring a domestic flight – is offset by the tremendous sense of remoteness. Offering 97 rooms, this is the only resort in the Laamu atoll, and minimal light pollution means heavenly stargazing.
The kids’ club is a modest affair, with an arts and crafts room and a sandy playground, which means children prefer tearing around the island on treasure hunts by bicycle (identified as their own by a wooden tag carved with their initials). Bikes come in all sizes, with or without stabilisers, and there are tricycles for parents to transport tots.
The “sustainability officer” does composting demonstrations and explains recycling techniques, the marine biologist teaches children about turtles, sharks and manta rays, and also supervises the dolphin cruise. On the main jetty there is a complimentary ice-cream bar with more than 40 flavours.
Anantara Dhigu Resort & Spa
Getting there: 35 minutes by boat
Best age range: three to 12 years
A huge draw here is the swift access by speedboat from Male airport, avoiding the need for a seaplane transfer or a scheduled flight. This 110-room resort is spread across three islands with a shared lagoon. Rooms feel a little tired, but there are lovely family options. Sunset family villas can take two adults and up to three young children, older families may prefer the two-bedroom Anantara pool villas connected via a sun deck.
Run by a lovely team, the Dhoni Club is a clutch of traditional Maldivian boats converted into air-conditioned play spaces. Facilities include a mini football pitch, swings, shaded tables for arts and crafts, and a 12ft chalk board. For older children, there is an excellent surf school, a new free-diving school and a marine biologist who leads visits to a coral nursery. A “beach guru” shimmies up palm trees and cracks open fresh coconuts, and there is unlimited free ice cream at the pool bar.
Getting there: 30 minutes by seaplane
Best age range: six to 14 years
This pioneering 57-room property excels at service and its imaginative new kids’ club, The Den, is refreshingly different. This is not a place to drop off the kids but, instead, takes a more inclusive approach to families holidaying together. Like it or not, this is about parent-child bonding and there are adult loungers next to a pool where a waterslide deposits screaming children. Nowhere else did I see on a kids’ club schedule: “Time with Mum & Dad”.
Facilities are first-class. There is a kitchen for cooking classes, a bar for whizzing up smoothies, a bright, airy Lego room, a music room with a drum kit and keyboard, a library and a fancy-dress room, where a stage is being built for theatrical productions.
Hours are short (10am to noon and 1pm to 5pm). Other activities include guided snorkelling with a marine biologist on the house reef, an open-air cinema, an observatory, a tennis court, table tennis and a glass-recycling art studio. Best of all are the black-and-white rabbits running free all over the island. Rooms are super-sized and villas are available with up to nine bedrooms.
Getting there: 25 minutes by seaplane
Best age range: 10 to 18 years
This is one of the few all-inclusives in the Maldives that allows growing teens to eat and drink endlessly without parents having to worry about the bill. Even the mini bar is complimentary and stocked with crisps, nuts and chocolate bars. That amounts to almost all-day dining, taking into account beach snacks, afternoon tea and hot canapés at sundown.
But the biggest draw here is the exceptional dive centre, BlueTribe, one of the best places to notch up skills, get qualified and experience the local marine life, from whale sharks to manta rays. This outfit is particularly strong on diving courses for children, with encouraging instructors who also give evening talks during the week. Many of the best dive sites are a 10-minute boat ride from the resort, meaning less time on the water and more time in it.
A PADI open water diver course costs about £600 and takes less than a week. Dive scooter courses are also available. Manta season is December to April and whale sharks can be seen most of the year. There is no kids’ club but there are complimentary yoga sessions and a games area for pool, giant chess, ping-pong, beach volleyball and water polo.